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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Darth Trump and the Revenge of the Sith Presidency

How Political Dysfunction Spirals into Authoritarianism

Tucked into the Star Wars prequels, amidst the visual grandeur and graceless dialogue, is a moderately interesting political story. A gridlocked and useless Galactic Senate finds itself slowly overtaken by a charming politician whose behind-the-scenes scheming is not apparent until it is too late.

Gridlock is something we’ve come to know well in Washington, D.C., and we should get used to it. There are no indications it’s getting better, and it will likely get worse as people grow increasingly polarized. For those of us who think that the government tends to pass harmful laws, gridlock seems like a net positive. Yet we must be wary of those who are tempted by the dark side of the Force to use that gridlock to their advantage.

We must be wary of our Sith presidency.

An Empire of Necessity?

Although George Lucas stipulates that the Empire and the Emperor are evil, it seems that Palpatine’s primary motive for taking over the Republic is to get things done. “The Republic is not what it once was,” laments then-Senator Palpatine in The Phantom Menace, “the Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good … the bureaucrats are in charge now.”

While we should certainly be suspicious of anything Palpatine says, he consistently claims that he’s merely trying to achieve peace and stability in the galaxy.

Others agree with him. “It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions,” observes young Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones.

“It’s been my experience that senators are only focused on pleasing those who fund their campaigns — and they are more than willing to forget the niceties of democracy to get those funds,” says Obi-Wan.

Other than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope, the Empire’s primary evil seems to be the subversion of democracy. The Senate’s gridlock and painstaking deliberative processes are the Empire’s primary complaint, and we do not hear about the Empire building concentration camps or see other signs that the Empire’s only mission is to inflict as much pain as possible on the citizens of the Galaxy.

The governing structure of the Galactic Republic is deeply silly. The opening crawl of Attack of the Clones tells us that there is “unrest in the Galactic Senate,” because “several thousand solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic.” Several thousand. Galactic Senators meet on Coruscant in a cavernous, stadium-like Senate building to debate the governance of hundreds of trillions if not a quadrillion citizens.

It’s unclear whether the Senate is more a UN-like organization, with little to no power over the internal governance of the member planets, an EU-like organization (some power), or a US-like organization (a lot of power). But the constant invocation of the Senate as a version of “democracy” seems to imply an organization with considerable power over the internal governance of its members. Few would describe the UN as a “democratic” institution with its power residing in “the people.”

Perhaps we can now get a better idea of why the “democratic” Galactic Senate is gridlocked. How could it not be? If you think it’s difficult getting Kansans and Vermonters to agree, try Wookiees and Twi’leks.

Over 20 years ago, Jonathan Rauch wrote about the emergence of “demosclerosis,” that is a democracy paralyzed by entrenched and competing interest groups. While democracies can certainly get crippled by smaller, more discrete interest groups, they can also be disabled by the quixotic pursuit of unified, centralized government over disparate groups of citizens.

Why should Kansans and Vermonters have to agree about how to be governed, much less Wookiees and Twi’leks? Why should Wookiees’ recalcitrance to go along with the Twi’lek proposals be seen as a “failure of democracy” rather than the honest desire to be left alone? And if the utopian pursuit of unified, centralized government persists, rather than the rational pursuit of decentralization and diversity, who’s going to step up when the system inevitably stalls? Who’s going to get things done?

Our Sith Presidency

For many decades, presidents of both parties have increased their powers vis-a-vis the other branches of government. Executive Orders have increased dramatically since the Founding Era (although they have decreased markedly since FDR), and most “laws” in the country now come from administrative rules, guidances, and clarifications issued by administrators who mostly report to the president.

Our current and persistent state of gridlock presents new problems for frustrated presidents who hope to secure a place on Mount Rushmore. In the face of defiant Congresses, presidents have become more likely to sidestep the legislative process and go straight to executive action, and no president has used gridlock more to his advantage than President Obama.

To an unprecedented extent, Obama has consistently invoked congressional gridlock as a reason why he can act unilaterally. “If Congress doesn’t act, I will” has been the motto of his presidency. For Obama, getting something done is more important than getting it done through proper democratic channels, and those who share Obama’s goals cheer him on. “So this is how liberty dies,” says Padme, “with thunderous applause.”

But Obama’s impatience with the democratic process will only start a trend. Every subsequent president will treat Obama’s unprecedented power grabs as a new baseline. If there is one guarantee in Washington, it is that those who criticize Obama now will later cheer a Republican president’s overreaching executive actions, just as those who criticized Bush now laud Obama. Very few see the phantom menace lurking in our midst.

The Rise of Darth Trump

When an unwieldy, unwise, and remote central government becomes paralyzed, “the people” feel increasingly left out. If there’s one thing that everyone in America seems to agree on, it’s that the government in Washington is not working for them. Crafty Sith lords can take advantage of that distaste and offer something new: an outsider who seems to be the antithesis of those who got us into this mess.

The Sith are wily creatures. They can hide in plain sight, even when surrounded by supposedly attuned Jedi. They are experts at manipulating public opinion. They understand and stoke the underlying fear and hatred that lurks inside each of us. “I can feel your anger,” they tell us, “Let the hate flow through you.”

Mostly they are opportunists who strike when the time is right. Darth Sidious understood that citizens of the galaxy were upset with the Galactic Senate, and he used it to his advantage. Due to an obscene experiment in democratic centralization, the government had stalled. Everyone could agree that the government was not serving them because, in all likelihood, that was true. Coruscant was the K Street of the Galactic Republic, and everyone else was just a plaything for those in power. Any reasonable person could see that the Galactic Senate was never designed to serve different species living on different planets hundreds or thousands of light years apart. The idea is just silly.

Yet, nevertheless, faith in the Galactic Senate dies hard. When “democracy” is held up as the paragon of human excellence, and when centralization is seen as synonymous with progress, people often lose hope when those things are compromised.

It’s then that the Sith strike. They seek to become everything to everyone. They claim to be immune to the problems endemic to government and able to fix those problems through their immense personal power and training. The crowds cheer with thunderous applause. “At last someone is standing up and doing something about it.”

And then the journey to the dark side will be complete.

This first article appeared on

  • Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His research interests include constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal and political philosophy, and legal history. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.